Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial kick-off to the summer season. It’s a time for us to heat up the grill and head to the beach with family and friends! But, this holiday is more than a day to celebrate our summer traditions; Memorial Day, is a day to honor and remember the women and men who have died while serving our nation. Originally known as Decoration Day, the origin of this holiday comes from the observances of organized women’s groups who would come together and use flowers to decorate the graves of loved ones who died in the Civil War.

There is some controversy over where in the U.S. Decoration Day was first conceived, but the first formal observance seems to have been recorded on May 5, 1866, in Waterloo, New York, which was officially declared the “Birthplace of Memorial Day” by President Lyndon Johnson in May of 1966, 100 years after the first commemoration. It is believed that spring date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country at that time of year, giving everyone an opportunity to observe and decorate.

In 1882, the original name of the holiday, Decoration Day, was officially changed to Memorial Day, and soldiers who had died in previous wars were honored as well. In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared Memorial Day a federal holiday to take place on the last Monday in May.

Historically, women have served our country in a variety of ways, and establishing a day of memorial is just one of them. We’d also like to take this moment to honor some other women you should know who stood in defense of our nation. Here are a few “firsts” of pioneering military women and their accomplishments:

  • During the Mexican War, Elizabeth C. Newcume, in male attire, was brought into military service at Fort Leavenworth in September 1847. She served ten months and spent time fighting Indians at Dodge City until her sex was discovered and she was discharged.
  • The first woman to receive The Medal of Honor was Dr. Mary E. Walker, a contract surgeon during the Civil War.
  • The first woman to receive The Purple Heart was Annie G. Fox while serving at Hickam Field during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec 7 1941.
  • Loretta Walsh was the first woman to enlist in March 1917.
  • The first military all women band was the Women’s Army Band organized at Fort Des Moines in 1942. It was led by then sergeant, MaryBelle Nissly.
  • In 1967 Master Sergeant Barbara J. Dulinsky, who had volunteered for duty in Vietnam, reported to the Military Assistance Command in Saigon – the first woman Marine ordered to a combat zone.
  • In 1990 Commander Darlene Iskra became the first woman to command a U.S. Navy ship – the U.S.S. Opportune.

On May 30, 1870, Major General John A. Logan gave an address in honor of Memorial Day that perfectly summarizes the holiday’s meaning. In it he said: “This day of memorial, on which we decorate their graves with the tokens of love and affection, is no idle ceremony with us, to pass away an hour; but it brings back to our minds in all their vividness the fearful conflicts of that terrible war in which they fell as victims…. Let us, then, all unite in the solemn feelings of the hour, and tender with our flowers the warmest sympathies of our souls! Let us revive our patriotism and love of country by this act, and strengthen our loyalty by the example of the noble dead around us.”

So as we head out for the long weekend, let us remember.